Tablet Life & Arts

TV review: ‘The Missing’

At first, you logically assume the title of Starz’ new series The Missing refers to the child who disappears when his parents are stuck overnight in a small French town while their car is being repaired.

But as this increasingly complex drama unwinds, the title takes on a less obvious but more provocative meaning: The missing lives, both past and present, of young Oliver’s parents, various suspects in the boy’s disappearance, strangers who get involved in the case and even the British and French police. The boy’s presumed abduction is tragic in its own right, but becomes the dramatic catalyst for uncovering secrets of the past, and forever altering the course of lives in the future.

Deep into the eight-episode limited series, premiering 8 p.m. Saturday , a French school girl reads aloud from Lewis Carroll: “It’s no use going back to yesterday because I was a different person then.” The line from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland perfectly summarizes the entire dramatic premise of the show, created and written with exquisite care by brothers Harry and Jack Williams, as it toggles back and forth between 2006, when Oliver disappears, and the present day.

Tony Hughes (James Nesbitt) is of course devastated by his son’s disappearance. One minute, the boy was with him as they stood among a crowd of French soccer fans watching the World Cup finals between France and Brazil on TV. The next, the boy is gone.

At first, the police of Chalons du Bois sympathize with Tony and his wife, Emily (Frances O'Connor), doing whatever they can to try to find the boy, even bringing in an expert investigator, Julien Baptiste (Tcheky Karyo) and welcoming the presence of British cop Mark Walsh (Jason Flemyng) as a consultant.

But the case stalls and life goes on, for everyone, it seems, except Tony, who is obsessively haunting the narrow streets of the French town years after Oliver has disappeared. He and Emily have divorced and she is now married to Mark Walsh. She keeps a photo of Oliver in her house, but is a de facto mother to Walsh’s son James (Macauley Keeper). Over the years, Tony has tried to interest her in his search for Oliver, but it’s too painful for Emily. She’s tried to wall her grief off in her brain, but it’s simply too potent to stay bottled up.

Although The Missing continues to turn on the mystery of Oliver’s abduction, it broadens its focus to consider the lives of others, including a child molester named Vincent Bourg (Titus de Voogdt), who is an obvious suspect in the boy’s disappearance, and Ian Garrett (Ken Stott), a wealthy industrialist who befriends Tony and Emily just as the cops seem to be reaching a dead end in the case. We also meet a young journalist named Malik Suri (Arsher Ali), who at times seems to be concerned about finding the boy.

We form opinions about each of these characters and others, only to discover there’s more to them than we originally thought. Julien, for example, who comes out of retirement to return to the case years after Oliver’s abduction, becomes almost as obsessed with finding Oliver as Tony. Why? Perhaps because he has a drug-addicted daughter who seems beyond his hope and he may want to save Oliver from a similar fate. There are even aspects of Vincent’s life to be discovered as The Missing continues – the revelations may not change who he is but we can’t help seeing him in a different light with additional information about his life.

Overall, the characters are compellingly and credibly fluid. We see how their lives are shaped and perhaps destroyed by this one event. Even the townspeople change over time. In 2006, they are supportive and concerned for the young couple whose child has gone missing. Eight years later, they find Tony an annoyance and blame him for the fact that the town is forever associated with a missing child.

The performances are superb at every level, with each actor rising to the challenge of revealing previously unrealized aspects of his or her character. Fortunately, the cast blessed with a beautifully nuanced script from the Williams brothers.

Yes, there are moments when the series edges toward being over-plotted with just a tad too many character reveals. In fact, after a few episodes, you may find yourself greeting the appearance of each new character by wondering what you'll discover about them down the road. But these are minor and entirely forgivable nits.

The Williams brothers, sons of novelist Nigel Williams, could give a master class in how to write character-based drama, much on the order of Broadchurch and The Killing.

Director Tom Shankman does a marvelous job, not only as handmaid to so many great performances, but in maintaining dramatic flow and suspense as The Missing flashes back and forth from the present day to 2006 throughout the series.

The missing child plot is almost a cliche for film and TV, and why wouldn’t it be? Who couldn’t identify with parents whose child suddenly goes missing? But while other TV shows and films trip over the cliched aspects of that set-up, The Missing skillfully misses them almost entirely.